The Choke

The Choke

A mesmerising, harrowing and ultimately uplifting novel from the 2015 Miles Franklin winner.Abandoned by her mother as a toddler and only occasionally visited by her volatile father who keeps dangerous secrets, Justine is raised solely by her Pop, an old man tormented by visions of the Burma Railway. Justine finds sanctuary in Pop's chooks and The Choke, where...

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Title:The Choke
Author:Sofie Laguna
Rating:
Edition Language:English

The Choke Reviews

  • Marianne

    “When Michael asked me questions, he waited for my answers. He wanted to find out. He wouldn’t go on until I answered. It was the opposite of invisible,”

    The Choke is the third adult novel by award-winning Australian author, Sofie Laguna. Ten-year-old Justine Lee has lived with Pop since her mother split when she was just three. Pop loves his chooks and the big man (John Wayne), loves his White Ox rollies and loves Justine too, but he’s haunted by what he experienced in Burma, buildin

    “When Michael asked me questions, he waited for my answers. He wanted to find out. He wouldn’t go on until I answered. It was the opposite of invisible,”

    The Choke is the third adult novel by award-winning Australian author, Sofie Laguna. Ten-year-old Justine Lee has lived with Pop since her mother split when she was just three. Pop loves his chooks and the big man (John Wayne), loves his White Ox rollies and loves Justine too, but he’s haunted by what he experienced in Burma, building the Eastern Bullet railway during the war, so his caring for Jussy is somewhat erratic. Eggs are plentiful, but baths and clean clothes less so, and her shoes pinch her toes.

    Justine’s older half-brothers live with their mum, Relle. All of them wait eagerly for the reappearance of Ray, the father whose mystique only magnifies with each month of absence. The boys vie for scraps of affection, moments of notice, desperate for their father’s approval: ”Kirk and Steve came over to him. Kirk walked with his chest out, like he was a man with a slingshot, a bow and arrow, and a gun, and he could choose which one he wanted to shoot. Steve was behind him, half hidden, in the cool of Kirk’s shadow.” And when they receive insults instead of encouragement, they try to hide their dismay.

    Jussy finds school difficult: the letters jump around and go backwards. Then she is seated next to the boy everyone avoids, as a punishment. But that has a surprising result: “Michael knew the answer. I looked at him; he looked back at me, his eyes steady, while the rest of him jerked and shook, as if the person pulling the strings was excited.”

    Laguna splits her tale into two time periods: 1971-72 when Jussy is in primary school; and a few years later, her first year of high school. She captures early seventies rural Victoria and the prevailing social attitudes with consummate ease. The sexual discrimination, disability discrimination, the homophobia, the sexist attitudes that demote women to second class citizens, the forced adoptions, the gun culture: all will strike a chord with readers of a certain vintage.

    Laguna’s depiction of a ten-year-old’s interpretation of events, how the adults react to them, and what they say, is faultless. Despite Jussy’s confusion, her impressions are often uncannily accurate: “Every time Dad spoke, it was light, like a ball being thrown in the air, easy, like a breeze, but under it was heavy as lead.” Laguna’s descriptive prose is often stunningly beautiful.

    Laguna gives the reader a diverse cast of characters: most are realistically flawed, and while their poor behaviour may disappoint, it can be understood as a product of their upbringing and life experience, even when the characters themselves are unappealing. There is a good deal of cruelty which, from the children can be unwitting, while from the adults is usually intentional. But there is much kindness also, often from those with most hardship to bear.

    Justine is a determined young girl, kind and impossible not to like, or even love; certainly, she is easy to care about and hope for. Laguna’s characters deal with guilt, grief, jealousy, revenge, resentment, family disputes and PTSD. While there’s some humour, there are also heartbreaking moments that guarantee a lump in the throat, if not the eyes welling up. A brilliant read from a talented author.

  • Amanda - Mrs B's Book Reviews

    *

    Sofie Laguna, the brilliant Australian author of The Choke, first came to my attention when she won our country’s top literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award in 2015, for The Eye of the Sheep. It is a book I am yet to read but I am hoping to bring it to my book club as my pick, due to the accolades it has received. Sofie Laguna’s latest labour of love is a touching and heart wrenching read of a young girl named Justine Lee, liv

    *

    Sofie Laguna, the brilliant Australian author of The Choke, first came to my attention when she won our country’s top literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award in 2015, for The Eye of the Sheep. It is a book I am yet to read but I am hoping to bring it to my book club as my pick, due to the accolades it has received. Sofie Laguna’s latest labour of love is a touching and heart wrenching read of a young girl named Justine Lee, living with her grandfather, in close proximity to the banks of the Murray. The Choke is in reference to a small body of water that lies between two almost adjoining banks. The Choke is the pivotal platform where Justine’s life plays out as she teeters between childhood and adulthood.

    Justine Lee was born as a breech baby, who sees the world upside down. She lives a life surrounded by men and is in the sole care of her troubled grandfather, a Burma Railway World War II veteran. Justine’s mother abandoned their family many years ago. Justine’s father Ray is a figure who floats in and out of Justine’s life. Ray’s inability to remove himself from criminal activities has a devastating impact on the impressionable Justine. Justine often retreats from her cruel and violent world in the sanctuary she has built in The Choke, by the banks of the Murray. She also takes solace in her Pop’s chooks, finding these animals offer no brutality or judgement. The Choke is a novel told in two parts, the first outlining 10 year old Justine’s experiences of the world around her, in year 1971. This part of the narrative covers Justine’s turbulent time at school, through to the beautiful friendship she forms with a disabled classmate, to the defining moment of violence Justine’s father unwittingly involves her in. The Choke is ultimately a harrowing coming of age tale. The Choke then moves three years forward and we see the world through the eyes of an adolescent Justine, now aged 13 years old. A little tougher but still naive and vulnerable, Justine’s future again comes under threat as she is taken advantage of by those she sees as worthy of her trust. The repercussions of this incident has lasting damage on a child that has been exposed to far too much in her young life.

    I probably mulled over my review for The Choke for far longer than normal. I can see this is warranted, like a handful of reviewers before me, they too have struggled to find the words to do this book and the very talented author Sofie Laguna justice. What I will do is urge you to read this novel and I hope my review will more than tempt you to pick this novel to read. It is one of those books I could easily award 6 stars to, if it was possible.

    Sofie Laguna has a rare talent. It is not often that an author can so readily portray the voice of a child, in this case a 10 and 13-year-old girl with such conviction. Laguna’s ability to slot herself so freely into the mind and soul of a child is confounding to say the least. I was absolutely convinced of Justine’s narration from the beginning to the end of this brilliant novel. Laguna is adept in balancing Justine’s world view of a young girl who is perceptive, vulnerable, naive, self-deprecating and giving all the same.

    Laguna’s talent in the area of characterisation extends further. In the case of Pop, Justine’s grandfather, Laguna outlines this protagonist with a deft hand. Pop is survivor, a troubled older man with a severe case of PTSD, who struggles to care for himself, let alone love and care for his young granddaughter. His attempts to care for Justine earned both my ire and my respect. His efforts to ensure Justine was not placed in care and stayed with her family had a redeeming quality. There were times when I disagreed completely with his actions but by working to understanding the root of this character, his wartime experiences and the tempestuous years that followed, clearly held impact for this character. Ray, Justine’s criminal father, also earned my wrath early in the piece. He was an odious, violent and unfeeling character, well presented by Laguna but he was a man who deserved all that came to him, a hefty jail sentence. There are a collection of periphery players in this novel, such as Justine’s largely absent aunt, a redneck band of neighbours and cousins and of course, Michael, a gentle soul who shines some light in Justine’s dark world. All are memorable and dimensional figures, drawn carefully by Laguna.

    The Choke, in which the title of this book is named after, is almost a character in itself. It commands a strong presence throughout this novel. The sense of place is remarkable in this book. I could easily picture myself on the banks of the Murray, with Justine, seeking out the solace the natural beauty this area. I appreciated the significance The Choke played to the overall turn of events and to the formation of Justine’s character over the progression of the novel.

    The Choke was a consuming tale. There were times I held my breath, turned my eyes away from the book and felt my heart warm completely. I made sure I grabbed firmly onto moments of hope, while simultaneously found myself shuddering at the treatment of a young girl who was forced to confront a cruel and unforgiving world, far too soon. Sofie Laguna is an author with extraordinary storytelling abilities, her dexterity in bringing to life a dysfunctional working class family’s trials and tribulations from the 1970’s, with specific focus on a young girl’s haunting experiences with such a commanding force is simply exceptional.

    *I wish to thank Allen & Unwin for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.

  • Brenda

    Justine lived with her Pop as her father, Ray, was rarely around. Her mother had left when she was three years old having never recovered, both physically and mentally, from Justine’s birth. Pop’s shack near the banks of the Murray River where he and Justine spent their days was barely liveable – Pop had survived the war, but his memories of the Burma Railway and his part in the building of it, were forever in his mind.

    Justine had two half-brothers – Steve and Kirk – and while they were young,

    Justine lived with her Pop as her father, Ray, was rarely around. Her mother had left when she was three years old having never recovered, both physically and mentally, from Justine’s birth. Pop’s shack near the banks of the Murray River where he and Justine spent their days was barely liveable – Pop had survived the war, but his memories of the Burma Railway and his part in the building of it, were forever in his mind.

    Justine had two half-brothers – Steve and Kirk – and while they were young, they spent their days together, doing what kids all over did. The Choke where the Murray’s banks were closest was a site of great entertainment; Pop’s girls, the chooks, took Justine’s attention as she collected the eggs. But as she grew up, things changed. And at thirteen, Justine’s gentle, quiet and unassuming life would change forever…

    by Aussie author Sofie Laguna is an emotional, dark and unsettling novel which will break your heart and give you hope all at the same time. Justine is a naïve young girl, with no-one around her but men, both old and young – no-one to explain about life to her. She can’t verbalise the questions; therefore, she doesn’t have the answers.

    P233.

    I’m finding it difficult to review

    as I feel I’m unable to do the author justice. Her writing is unique; her descriptions, both of the area Justine lives, and Justine’s life and her internal traumas is outstanding. I could see the danger coming for Justine, but it was like watching a train wreck and not being able to do anything about it.

    I loved

    and Sofie Laguna has another winner with

    in my opinion. Very highly recommended.

    With thanks to Allen & Unwin for my ARC to read and review.

  • Sharon

    Justine was abandoned by her mother when she was only a small child. It was her Pop who came to her rescue and raised Justine on his own. On the odd occasion her father would visit. Her father was a man who kept dark and dangerous secrets and it was a good thing that Justine was not in his care.

    Pop was an old man who'd been through the war and survived it, but to this day visions of the Burma Railway still haunts him.

    To escape into another world, Justine enjoyed spending time with Pop's chooks

    Justine was abandoned by her mother when she was only a small child. It was her Pop who came to her rescue and raised Justine on his own. On the odd occasion her father would visit. Her father was a man who kept dark and dangerous secrets and it was a good thing that Justine was not in his care.

    Pop was an old man who'd been through the war and survived it, but to this day visions of the Burma Railway still haunts him.

    To escape into another world, Justine enjoyed spending time with Pop's chooks and The Choke which is where the banks of the Murray River are so close together they are almost touching. A tranquil spot that was so peaceful and beautiful.

    As Justine begins to get older things are on the verge of changing and life as she knows it will take a turn for the worse. How will she get through the next stage of her life and what impact will it have on her?

    This was a BRILLIANT read and now that I've read both Sofie Laguna's novels, it's certainly not difficult to tell why this talented author was given a Miles Franklin Award. A fabulous book that will have you feeling emotional and rather heart broken at times, but well worth reading. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

  • Ace

    Anyone who has read Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna will know that she has a special gift for writing special children and also excels at painting a uniquely Australian landscape for those characters. Her characters portray the expected gender roles of the time. Her books are not easy reads, they can leave you emotionally drained and often, for me anyway, will make you question your own thoughts and behaviours and bring dormant lying guilt back up to the surface.

    Essentially this boo

    Anyone who has read Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna will know that she has a special gift for writing special children and also excels at painting a uniquely Australian landscape for those characters. Her characters portray the expected gender roles of the time. Her books are not easy reads, they can leave you emotionally drained and often, for me anyway, will make you question your own thoughts and behaviours and bring dormant lying guilt back up to the surface.

    Essentially this book is about Justine who lives with her grandfather, Pop, and his chickens (chooks) in a rural area near Echuca on the Victorian side of the river. But it features two other big and significant forces. First, the mighty Murray River and surrounds in what was the mid-1970’s, I would have been about Justine’s age myself at the time this book was set. It is remarkably accurate and detailed in its descriptions of this part of Victoria. Ray, the character that plays father, brother, son and cousin to some neigbouring family and friends in this town is the other mighty force in the book. Everyone’s life seems to revolve around him whether they like it or are even aware of it. He is ever present and distant at the same time. He is an a**hole of extreme proportions playing off people who love him against each other. He is the worst role model, immature and cruel.

    Rural in every way, more so because Pop has three acres and is suffering from severe PTSD after returning from being a prisoner of war in Burma. His symptoms and his attitude to life and people bring Justine into an even more insulated, isolated and remote part of rural life with the one exception of her going to school for a few hours each weekday.

    During the four years that this book is set in you will see Justine suffer from extreme neglect, poor hygiene and bordering on malnutrition, if it wasn’t for those damned eggs. Your heart will break but the prose is so beautiful you won’t be able to put the book down. Highly recommended reading.

  • Paul Lockman

    I thought about this book for a couple days before deciding on a rating, it was definitely going to be at least 4 but I have decided to give it 5 stars. I feel Sofie Laguna has nailed it, the characters and the setting were so raw and authentic and it’s no mean feat to write from the perspective of a child, Justine, who was 10 years old in the first two thirds of the book and 13 and 14 years old for the remainder.

    We’re in the 1970s in country Victoria, Australia, and Justine lives wi

    I thought about this book for a couple days before deciding on a rating, it was definitely going to be at least 4 but I have decided to give it 5 stars. I feel Sofie Laguna has nailed it, the characters and the setting were so raw and authentic and it’s no mean feat to write from the perspective of a child, Justine, who was 10 years old in the first two thirds of the book and 13 and 14 years old for the remainder.

    We’re in the 1970s in country Victoria, Australia, and Justine lives with her grandfather, Pop, a Vietnam veteran who is scarred by the experience and battling his mental demons. Pop talks to himself and his chooks a lot about anything and everything and we get the sense there’s a lot of guilt surrounding the passing of Pop’s wife Lizzy some years prior. In the background is Justine’s father Ray, a menacing figure who lives an itinerant life, turns up at Pop’s unannounced and who is frequently on the wrong side of the law. Ray’s older sister Rita, Aunty Rita to Justine, is one of the few people not scared of Ray and she and Justine get on very well but Rita is unable to visit Pop’s place very often. I loved the friendship that developed between Justine and Michael at primary school. The teacher initially made Justine sit next to Michael as a form of punishment. Michael has a physical disability and is cruelly referred to as ‘elastic spastic’ by some of the other kids but Justine and he end up the closest of friends. Justine actually has a learning disability (probably dyslexia) but this goes unnoticed right throughout her schooling and Michael helps her in class and with homework.

    Although The Choke referred to a narrow section of the Murray River, I thought it was a great metaphor for the suffocation and oppression that many of the characters felt by their circumstances and life experiences. Another reason I gave it 5 stars was that I really didn’t want the book to end, I wanted to read on and find out what happens to everyone next. Let’s hope Sofie Laguna writes a sequel. Highly recommended.

  • Bianca

    3.5 rounded up

    I saw Sofie Laguna recently during the Perth Writers Festival. The room was packed with people who had already read the

    . It was a riveting session, so I couldn't wait to get stuck into this book.

    This novel is set during the early 1970s, in a small rural town in Victoria by the Murray River.

    Our narrator is Justine Lee, who's ten. She lives with her paternal grandfather, Pop, as her mum had left when Justine was three and her father, Ray, is a drifter.

    3.5 rounded up

    I saw Sofie Laguna recently during the Perth Writers Festival. The room was packed with people who had already read the

    . It was a riveting session, so I couldn't wait to get stuck into this book.

    This novel is set during the early 1970s, in a small rural town in Victoria by the Murray River.

    Our narrator is Justine Lee, who's ten. She lives with her paternal grandfather, Pop, as her mum had left when Justine was three and her father, Ray, is a drifter. Pop has undiagnosed PTSD, following years working the Burma Railways as a PoW. He's also an alcoholic and is a bit clueless when it comes to looking after a girl, especially since he can barely look after himself. I guess he does the best he can. Justine is shy and doesn’t make any waves; she has no idea about hygiene, as her Pop only makes her have a bath occasionally. She's also dyslexic and a bit slow to understand things.

    I've read many books written from a kid's perspective, more often than not, it's obvious that an adult had attributed his/her own thoughts to a child. This is not the case with

    . Laguna did a fantastic job showing us the world through Justine's naive eyes. As far as I'm concerned, that was the stand-out thing about this novel. It felt very authentic. And it also had a distinct Aussie feel about it.

    i>The Choke is very readable - it has beautiful descriptions of the rural area and the dialogues are plentiful. Speaking of dialogue, at times, I was getting annoyed with the many "I said", "he/she said" after, what it felt, like every sentence in a conversation. It got better eventually or I got used to it.

    The story was somewhat familiar. Most of the men in the novel are pretty horrible: drunks, selfish, incompetent, and violent. Justine has no good role models, male or female. At times, it was heartbreaking witnessing Justine's naivety. She's an unjudgemental observer and almost invisible to most, except to her good friend, Michael. Their friendship was very touching.

    Times flies by. Justine is now thirteen, going to high school, although she can’t read. Unfortunately, her difficult life gets even more complicated as she finds herself having to deal with grown-up issues for which she’s completely unprepared.

    I’m glad I finally read Sofie Laguna. I must say I had very high expectations, which I guess made me feel somewhat deflated that I didn’t love this novel. The story was somewhat familiar and it never really hit me in the gut. I think I’m getting a bit weary of what could be construed as “misery lit”.

  • Carolyn

    I found this a dark and depressing story for the most part, albeit a powerful one, as I had a fair idea where it was heading from the start. Justine, abandoned by her mother when she was young and rarely visited by her largely absent, shady, womanising father, lives with her grandfather. Suffering from PTSD, with recurring nightmares of his WWII experience on the Burma Railway, he does his best to care for Justine but she is nevertheless impoverished and neglected. The kids at school avoid her a

    I found this a dark and depressing story for the most part, albeit a powerful one, as I had a fair idea where it was heading from the start. Justine, abandoned by her mother when she was young and rarely visited by her largely absent, shady, womanising father, lives with her grandfather. Suffering from PTSD, with recurring nightmares of his WWII experience on the Burma Railway, he does his best to care for Justine but she is nevertheless impoverished and neglected. The kids at school avoid her as she is dirty and unkempt, rarely given a bath or clean cloths. She is also struggling to learn as she is dyslexic and cannot read and write, something her teachers have somehow failed to see. Her one friend is Michael, a boy with cerebral palsy, who invites her to his home and for a time allows her a glimpse of a normal home and childhood. However, as she approaches adolescence, she must face high school and the older kids on her own with devastating consequences.

    Sofie Laguna writes very evocatively about the Australian landscape, particularly the farm where Justine and her Pop live and the banks of the Murray River where Justine feels most at home. She also has great insight into the mind of a young girl growing up with little adult guidance and few of the pleasures of childhood. Most of the men and boys in Justine's life are depicted as violent and selfish and there are few women to act as role models or care givers although Justine's aunt tries to connect but is disallowed by her father and grandfather. Although her grandfather clearly loves her he is poorly educated himself and ill-equipped to deal with a teenage girl and his life is also fairly grim. Just like the Choke, an area of the Murray where the banks narrow and the river has to struggle to get through, Justine's life is almost relentlessly channeled to a point where she has few choices and must be strong to forge ahead.

  • Phrynne

    Another heart breaker from this very talented writer. It starts very slowly but gradually creeps up on you - by the end I was a tearful mess.

    writes about children you want to run out and adopt. In

    it was Jimmy, a delightful little boy with Asperger's Syndrome. In

    it is Justine, a child who is basically overlooked and neglected, a girl who is raised by me

    Another heart breaker from this very talented writer. It starts very slowly but gradually creeps up on you - by the end I was a tearful mess.

    writes about children you want to run out and adopt. In

    it was Jimmy, a delightful little boy with Asperger's Syndrome. In

    it is Justine, a child who is basically overlooked and neglected, a girl who is raised by men with major issues of their own and who consequently has no idea about life and its hazards. She is an accident waiting to happen and of course it does.

    This would make a great book club book because the ending could be debated forever. Is it possible to break the cycle of abuse? How much help would someone like Justine need to step out of her situation and live a better life? Is she going to make it? What do you think will happen next? Read it and see what you think!

  • PattyMacDotComma

    Justine tells her own story. It’s 1971, near the fictional rural town of Nullabri in Victoria, Australia. I’m aware of Narrabri and Boggabri in NSW, both seeming to mean “place of” something. We know what “null” means, and that’s pretty apt. Except fo

    Justine tells her own story. It’s 1971, near the fictional rural town of Nullabri in Victoria, Australia. I’m aware of Narrabri and Boggabri in NSW, both seeming to mean “place of” something. We know what “null” means, and that’s pretty apt. Except for being near the Mighty Murray, as the river's fondly known, this place has little to offer Justine.

    Justine is the product of an affair between her father, Ray, (who was married with two sons). and her mother, Donna, who soon disappeared, leaving Justine with Ray’s father, Pop. Ray began life as a rascal and graduated to more serious crime, occasionally returning home to “Pop’s Three”, (three acres), to hide out.

    Pop talks to his chooks when he’s not talking to his dead wife or to himself. He mutters, he cries out, he is a broken man after his time during WW2 on the Burma Railway. He also has an intermittent pain in his guts, which he shouts at as if the Railway itself is eating him up.

    When he’d disappear into himself in his bedroom, Justine was alone.

    When things are better, they watch old John Wayne movies. She’s internalised all the dialogue and no wonder. Pop addresses the Big Man as if he were in the room. After watching

    :

    In

    , the female lead is a card shark saloon girl called “Feathers”, who seems to catch Justine’s fancy. Justine and Pop eat mostly eggs from his beloved chickens, so chickens and feathers are what she knows best.

    She collects feathers, she drops little feathers on her aunt’s sleeve, almost as a gift, and she notices feathers everywhere. Soft and light, unlike her life.

    There’s also Dumbo’s blue feather (that he holds to help him fly), which her dad turns into conversational innuendo with a woman while Justine’s watching the movie.

    That conversation may help explain why Justine “feels” feathers tickling parts of her body when she starts experiencing some new physical sensations as a teenager.

    She’s been written off. She’s filthy, unkempt, ill-cared for . . . and overlooked. She can’t learn and she’s bullied. This is the early 1970s, and schools weren’t as aware as they are now of causes of learning problems. She knows, though. Her thinking is backwards because her whole life started out backwards when she split her mother open.

    When she was three, her mother “split town”, and later she talks of the ground splitting around her brother and her grandfather likely to split apart from the explosives inside him from the war.

    But her daydreaming is well and truly functioning, and we can dream with her even while we worry about the feathers that are bound to fly and the splits that she may suffer in the future.

    Justine isn’t being raised – she’s just getting older, often disappearing to her “keepout” (a hideout) along the Murray River, where she lives in her make-believe house in her make-believe world. Here, she’s Mary Kate, Maureen O’Hara’s character in

    There’s no green hem, no long skirt, just an amazing imagination, locked inside this mostly silent girl.

    Laguna’s language is often poetic, sparing us raw, graphic details, but Justine’s desperate circumstances are clear enough. It’s a difficult story, but as with

    , you can’t turn your eyes away from this misunderstood child. And she’s still getting older, just hitting the rebellious teen years.

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